Friday, 7 March 2014

Nostalgia (Νοσταλγία)

On Clean Monday, my husband bought the lagana bread for the meal I had prepared which we were going to eat with our friends. He bought 4 laganes at a total cost of 12 euro, 2 each from 2 different bakeries, which had opened up especially to sell the traditional bread for the first day of Lent.

I knew we wouldn't get through the lagana bread in one day. I also knew that we would still be eating lagana at the end of the week. You can tell that my husband isn't as frugal as I am. But bread is an absolutely essential part of his meal and he knows bakery bread well. He tends to over-buy... but we don't throw it away, and I sometimes hide it in the fridge to slow down staleness. My husband has been eating bakery bread in Hania for nearly 6 decades, so he is entitled to be a bakery bread snob. Over time, he has changed his preferences for his favorite bakeries; he knows when recipes change or the baker doesn't produce good bread consistently, and he is keen to try a new bakery (which don't pop up like cafes, souvlatzidika and tavernas, because you don't make good bread just like that). Being a bread snob, I know we are in good hands.

But it's different with lagana. Lagana is unleavened bread, so it goes stale much more quickly. It actually hardens to such a great extent that it is virtually inedible. It never lasts longer than 2 days... or so I thought.

It's Friday today, and there is still lagana in the bread box, the same lagana that was bought on Monday. We're still eating it, but this year, I don't have to perform magic tricks to make the lagana soft (eg by popping it in the microwave for 5 seconds). This is the second year I notice this happening. Before that, lagana was too dry to eat by Wednesday after Clean Monday. What has changed?

I remember hearing about lagana for the first time in my first year in Greece, when I lived in Athens. It was the 9th of March, 1992, and I had just returned from Crete, after getting my Greek identity card sorted out here (in the good old days, you had to deal with all your official paper work in the place where your birth was registered, whether it was a big city, a small town, or a minuscule village).

I had bought with me some lettuce and spring onions from my grandmother's garden (they were simply uprooted, with the soil still clinging to the roots: "they keep fresh that way," my uncle told me), a canister of olive oil ("you're only taking a koka-kola bottle's worth? That'll last you less than a week, Maria... ξιάσου (= suit yourself)...") and some fresh eggs, packed in such a way that they would not turn into raw omelette during the overnight ferry trip.

I recalled the foods of the day that my mother would prepare on Kathara Deftera in our Wellington home. Although it wasn't a holiday in New Zealand, there were a few years when we did not open the fish and chip shop on Mondays, which was perfect for celebrating Kathara Deftera (that didn't last long though: when the Chinese opposition sold his shop and it was bought by another Greek, both shops opened every day). I bought some olives, pickles and beans from the supermarket across the road, and I also popped into the bakery to buy some of that bread. I was surprised to see the lagana as I had never even heard of it before, and felt quite grateful to be experiencing Clean Monday in a quintessentially and veritably Greek fashion that year, unlike my parents, who were in New Zealand and would never come back together to Greece since my permanent move to Greece.

The lagana was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I liked it very much. It went well with my oily salad and supermarket buys. I think I had some of my uncles' wine too (in a koka-kola bottle, of course). I didn't eat all the lagana in one day. I thought I'd keep some for the next day too, because I had heard that this bread is only sold on Kathara Deftera.

The next day, I prepared another salad (I remember eating salad all that week), which I would eat with the lagana. Alas, the lagana had hardened, and it was not easy to chew, even more so the next day. I asked my landlord about this, and she told me that this was normal. Lagana does not contain any raising agents, therefore it goes stale. There is a special reason for this, as a friend recently explained:
"On Clean Monday people look far more relaxed, probably in the absence of meat... 'lagana', the special bread for the day, shares the same root as the word 'lagnos' which means relaxed and not suppressed. For this reason, I suppose on this day children share a kite-flying experience. I remember a few priceless attempts to construct our own rocket-like kite that would reach the deep space or the neighbors' mystery backyard! Still I praise this holiday for its simple, cheap, healthy menu variety and activities that even those with difficulties can follow up." 
When there is so much to enjoy, you don't wait for the bread to rise. In the afternoon of my first Kathara Deftera in Greece, I recall walking to Filopapou Hill with friends, for the traditional kite-flying event, another custom of the day. (I must dig up my photos - I am sure I will find one of that sunny spring day in Athens.)

Lagana and white wine - it's still 'fresh', even today (the photo was taken last night).
But lately, for at least two years now, maybe even three, I notice that lagana stays soft. I can't tell you why, nor can I tell you if it's a good thing or not. (I suppose they are baking it with yeast nowadays.) All I can tell you is that things have changed. I'm glad lagana doesn't go so stale so quickly any more, but I can't help feeling a nostalgic sadness over this change of affairs. I suppose it is in our interests, but I still feel cheated. Life has changed, and it really is getting better (the wine is definitely better than that of the past), but those old days were good too, at least in their time.

The past is a different country; they do things differently there.

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